Last week, a 92-year old retired engineer in Scotland passed away, and with him died the first unique Scottish dialect to be lost in Scotland. Usually, regional minority dialects will end up blending into standard English and form a hybrid or mixed language. But in this case, the distinct dialect known as Cromarty fisherfolk has, with the death of its last remaining native speaker, now become extinct.
Cromarty fisherfolk is interesting in that not only does it not aspirate any “h” sound, but it is also devoid of any ‘wh’ sound – a feature unique only to this Scottish dialect. Therefore, what becomes ‘at, where becomes ‘ere, and so on.
Robert Millar, a linguist of the School of Language and Literature at Aberdeen University, has said that could be a telling sign of things to come. From the article:
“The loss of Cromarty is symptomatic of a greater, general decline in the use of the Scots language,” according to Director of Scottish Language Dictionaries Chris Robinson. “This should be a wake-up call to save other struggling dialects.”
Ten miles down the coast from Cromarty is Avoch, another sleepy fishing village with the closest surviving dialect to Cromarty fisherfolk, one that may also be endangered, according to Robinson. “It looks more than likely that this will go the same way as the Cromarty dialect,” he said.
According to Millar, out of the 6 or 7 thousand languages throughout the world, one or two die off every week, and the majority of languages are such minority tongues that they are spoken only by a couple of hundred speakers. In all, 96% of the world’s population speak only 4% of the languages.
But why should we care if yet another dialect is gone forever? Back to Millar:
Why mourn the loss of a language? “At a banal level, it’s a little bit of color in our lives is gone,” he said. “Any time something dies, it’s lost. Whether it be languages or species, we lose something. Everyone in the world loses something. Diversity surely is a good thing, and we’ve just lost a bit of it.”
Greater communication and interdependence among communities is resulting in “dialect homogenization,” Millar said.
And people tend to abandon their own languages for one of the larger languages for good reasons, according to Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University and director of the school’s Institute for Language Information and Technology.
“They want modern conveniences; they want their children to have decent jobs,” he told CNN in a telephone interview. “All this requires being able to speak in the dominant language. So they see little use in preserving their languages.”
But the loss of a language often results in the loss of the stories that were told in that language, and in the cultural knowledge they contained. “Even medical know-how,” he said.